Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Figures of Speech Used in the Bible Explained and Illustrated

Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible Explained and Illustrated. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003.

This classic reference source was originally published in 1898 and it has been reprinted regularly ever since. Its longevity may be attributed to its usefulness in Biblical interpretation, along with its irresistible appeal to lovers of words and expression, who happen to be Christian, and to lovers of the Bible who appreciate a well-crafted turn of phrase.

So many times interpreters miss out on the spiciness of a playful use of words in the Biblical text, on the richness of multiple meanings embedded in the text, and on the fragrance of intentionally metaphorical language. Attention to a thorough and accessible work like this one can add these complex flavors back into one's interpretive work.

The book is arranged in the spirit of the ancient Greek techne, textbooks that catalog stylistic elements for use in rhetorical instruction. Aristotle's Poetics, Demetrius' On Style, and Longinus' On The Sublime come to mind as ancient works along these lines that provide profuse examples from the literature of the time. However, this one is more clearly focused on figurative language. A secular equivalent today would be Arthur Quinn's exquisite work Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase. Like Quinn's work, Bullinger's book is organized by the Latin and Greek names of figures such as "Epanadiplosis" (repetition of the same words at the beginning and the end of a sentence), "Hendiatris" (three words used for one thing), "Antimereia" (exchange of one part of speech for another), "Prolepsis" (anticipating an argument), and "Irony" (in its true meaning, as an expression of thought in a form that naturally conveys its opposite). Actually, Bullinger's work is more comprehensive than that of Quinn.

Unlike these works that are primarily about style and figurative language however, Bullinger's work draws all of its examples from the Bible, and it has a thorough index of scripture references that makes it accessible as a Biblical studies reference work. To be certain, this is its primary purpose, and it is useful to sort out odd things in the Bible.

Take, for example, Genesis 29:31 "And when the Lord saw that Leah was hated...".
Or, John 7:25 "He that loveth his life shall lose it...".

Bullinger points out that these are metonymies of loving or hating. Just knowing the word "metonymy" may be less than helpful, but these Bible texts do need some explanation, don't they? Jacob probably doesn't hate Leah, he just prefers Rachel. At worst, he might see Leah as "the old ball and chain" but "hate" is a bit strong, and deliberately so. In John, Jesus doesn't mean it is bad to love being alive, and he is not recommending suicide here. Don't let anyone with a pitcher of kool-aid tell you otherwise. We are simply not to value life more than Christ. Both phrases are written as superlative, but the meaning is comparative, and this increases the force of what the writer is conveying. They speak very much of the messiness and unfairness of everyday life and the need for a transcendent God that even breaks into our world in all of its messiness, either with an unexpected baby or as an unexpected messiah.

Can you see here how much it adds to an interpretation to know that? Many of us have been trained, either consciously or unintentionally, to take the Bible only at face value. We lose so much of its richness if we do so, and this work goes a long way toward helping us see past that face value.

If you happen to be a rhetoric nerd who is also Christian, like Saint Augustine and yours truly, this reference work can provide for hours of fascinating word play.



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